Priced Out Of The Water Market

A phrase that used to pop up on peak oil blogs was the clever euphemism “priced out of the food market” – neoliberalspeak for something much simpler in humans terms – starved.

Water: The Dry Facts isn’t quite that blunt, but I read the same thinking behind it.

Global Water Pressure

Global Water Pressure

We’ve covered water stress here, most notably in Yemen, Lebanon, and the Tigris & Euphrates basin. One of the biggest issues is efficiency – Cold War era civil engineering projects lose half the water they handle in some places and Egypt is covering open canals to prevent high losses due to evaporation. We have to get better at protecting fresh water, since there are more of us and less of it to go around.


The key to managing water better is to price it properly, giving consumers a reason not to waste it and investors an incentive to build infrastructure to supply it. Vast sums are needed: over $26 trillion between 2010 and 2030, by one estimate. Before water can be properly priced, however, it needs to be clear who owns it (or, more precisely, who has the right to extract how much from rivers, aquifers and so on). Australia has led the way in creating such a system of tradable water rights.

And there it is – the inevitable free market fairy dust. They suggest a blockchain solution, which would more more transparent and less susceptible to fiddling, but my initial thesis holds – some people and the environments they inhabit will be priced out of the market.

One of the mistakes free market fairy dust pushers make is the failure to account for what they call ‘externalities’. If you can sell an acre foot of water today for $100 that’s great, never mind the $10,000 in economic activity downstream that won’t be happening because of this, and definitely don’t worry about entire ecosystems collapsing because we’re using all precipitation and over drafting groundwater.

Water is easily understood as a liquid resource that can be pumped, stored, and used for a variety of activities.  But here in California Mother Nature has been showing us who is in charge – years of blistering drought, a failed El Niño, and then a mixed blessing/curse in the form of a massive Pineapple Express that nearly blew out the Oroville Dam.

Writing this pulls me out of reality and into recalling a work by one of my favorite authors, Bruce Sterling’s The Caryatids. I’ve only read this book twice and I did so in rapid succession, buying it in hardback when it came out in 2009. Distraction, another favorite of mine by the same author, is a book about the day after tomorrow, while Caryatids is about a world our grandchildren may experience.

I feel like I should have some sort of rousing conclusion for this, but every line of thought leads to more questions than answers. I guess this is a sort of mental milestone, a place I’ll revisit at some time in the future when some of the fog clears.

African Corn, American Pest

Fall Army Worms have been causing havoc with crops in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa and Ghana while reports suggest Malawi, Mozambique and Ghana are also affected. The linked article indicates they have been found in Uganda, too.

“If nothing is done we could lose up to 15 percent of our maize production,” said senior agriculture minister official Okasai Opolot.

Roughly 10% of Uganda’s 38 million people are involved in corn production and 10 million are already underfed. I can’t make out exactly what percentage of the national diet is corn, but other crops are affected, too.

There are 1.2 billion people in Africa and two thirds of them are in the south. Subsistence agriculture is the rule, a 15% decrease in crops wouldn’t mean the death of 120 million, but I do think that’s a number of appropriate magnitude.

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Climate Zones

Africa Population Distribution

Africa Population Distribution

120 million dead sounds awful, but recall that we are approaching an inevitable round of Functional Triage.  Instead of that, lets consider the future of the 680 million survivors.


Africa is rich in resources, not well developed, and the south has already dealt with a massive long term plague – AIDS. Much of Africa can still be self sufficient, not just growing the food they need, but locally manufacturing what other goods they require. If the U.S. loses 15% of its population, things here come undone. If our national supply chain is interrupted even briefly, in just a matter of days machines and people all begin to break down.

There IS a correlation between level of development and societal preservation, but I think the relationship is inverse. Most people in Africa grow their own food, or they know the people who do. That hasn’t been at all true in this country since the Silent Generation were young adults.

Look at that climate map. Look at the population distribution map. There are six high density population centers and four of them are in the south. The Nile’s Annual Flood is already under climate driven threat, North Africa exploded into Arab Spring in 2011, and I paid some attention to The Simmering Maghreb. Nigeria is being slowly torn apart by Boko Haram. Ethiopia had massive famine in the 1980s, the African Great Lakes suffered horrendous ethnic cleansing during the 1990s.

South Africa has had its troubles, the South African Border War from the 1960s through the end of the Cold War, their own internal struggle with Apartheid. But among the BRICS countries it is they and the Brazilians who are geographically and culturally isolated from the conflicts that entangle and plague the other three. Like Wrangel Island for the mammoths, South Africa was a redoubt for our species during the Toba Eruption, some 70,000 years ago.


If there is any place on this planet where some portion of industrialized western capability can be preserved, it is South Africa, even ahead of climate advantaged and preparation minded Scandinavia, which is too close to Europe and Russia to avoid being dragged in to their conflicts.


Not Just Ice Cores, Here Is A Dead Sea Salt Core

Under the Dead Sea, warnings of dire drought jumped right at me off the Phys page.

Dead Sea Salt Core

Dead Sea Salt Core: below the seabed, drilling revealed thick layers of salt, precipitated out during past warm, dry periods. In this specimen, transparent crystals (left) formed on what was then the bottom during winter; finer white ones (right) formed on the water surface in summer and later sank. Credit: Yael Kiro/Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

The salt core was drilled in 2010 and is now receiving renewed, deeper scrutiny. During interstadial periods the Mideast becomes drier, so much so that inflows of fresh water into the Dead Sea largely stop. We’re not that dry yet, but human use of the Jordan River has effectively accomplished the same thing.

Jordan is developing the Disi aquifer and there is a Red to Dead canal planned.  The Saudis have long tapped that water for local agriculture in a foolhardy bid for food security that runs counter to the natural resources they have at their command. Jordan is engaged in a rear guard action for land that will inevitably become desiccated.


This triptych gives as sense of the progression of events in the Dead Sea. The south of the sea is shallow and has been steadily overtaken by human construction. Current practices involve the annual removal of two million tons of potash (potassium chloride) and other salts. You should recognize potash as a precursor for one of the three key plant fertilizers, potassium. It is the least concern of the three in terms of being a Liebig Minimum.

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production

Dead Sea Salt & Potash Production


Bodies of water in the area drain and fill naturally as a consequence of Earth’s glacial cycles. There is a somewhat controversial theory, the Black Sea Deluge Hypothesis, that is thought to be an explanation of the origin of various great flood myths in the region.

The Mediterranean Sea has experienced similar events – the Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood that restored the sea to its current condition. There are cores from both the Black and Mediterranean seas, but they do not receive the same level of attention that ice cores do.

Four and a half years ago I published Why Gaza Is Screwed, a review of the water supply issues faced there. This is a ticking bomb for foreign policy, a pool of 1.6 million climate refugees just waiting to happen. The entire arc from West Africa to the Indus river valley faces this problem.


North of the Dead Sea is the Sea of Galilee, home to the Ohalo archeological site, which was occupied 8,000 years before North America’s Blackwater Draw. Humans hunted, gathered, and apparently performed early experiments with agriculture, inhabiting the site for a few generation before a fire of unknown origin leveled the simple huts. This site was revealed thanks to an epic drought in the late 20th century.

The Denisovans and Neanderthals were already gone except for their imprint on our genetics when that site was inhabited. Humans are now so pervasive and mobile that it will be difficult to track anything based on  genetics, but the Anthropocene is going to feature a massive cull of our species. What comes next? Maybe homo futurae, two thirds of our average height today, so they’ll tolerate the heat, digging into our species’ massive middens a hundred thousand years from now, wondering why we weren’t better at understanding our place in the web of life.

Societal Simulacra’s Rest Frame

Does the universe have a rest frame?

This little article got me thinking. Classically, we don’t have a non-inertial reference frame – the Big Bang happened, everything is moving, and we have no way to discern its point of origin, or more correctly there isn’t any location that isn’t accelerating relative to another. Keep in mind physical space is expanding. This image is one of the least confusing ways to envision it.

Our Expanding Universe

Our Expanding Universe

The inception, expansion, and prognosis for our civilization is something we ought to consider in a similar fashion.


Our species arose early in the Quarternary; a period of alternating stadials of continent spanning glaciers and warmer interglacial periods. We are children of ice and chaos. I am again at one of those points where Baudrillard’s Simulacra & Simulation is sitting in the center of my desktop, taunting me over the time quanta I dedicated to proper reading. I wonder if we face a similar problem as a species – a lack of a universal rest frame from which we can relate all the societal simulacra we inhabit. If you’ve never read Baudrillard, spend ten minutes here and you’ll get the gist of his work.


Accepting Baudrillard, perhaps lacking the time to delve deeper in the area, simulacra began when we began communicating other than face to face. Gutenberg’s printing press nearly six hundred years ago marks the beginning of the commoditization of communication, but we evolved one to many communication much earlier than that.

Lascaux Cave

Lascaux Cave

My first direct encounter with ancient art were the petroglyphs of Rinconada Canyon, literally the day before Lyme changed my life forever.

Rinconada Canyon Petroglyph

Rinconada Canyon Petroglyph

As I reflect while writing this, I think I had subconsciously already started up the Dark Mountain trail just a little while prior to that. I snapped this unremarkable sunrise photo at a truly remarkable place – somewhere off in the distance lies Blackwater Draw, a nearly 12,000 year old Clovis culture site in eastern New Mexico.

Encamped Near Blackwater Draw

Encamped Near Blackwater Draw

The zero point for modern humans is 200,000 years in the past, the two thirds of our time before the Toba bottleneck. Male hunters, female gatherers, children tagging along, in and out of camp, with regular moves when the urge to go became too strong to ignore. I know this feeling, not because I sought it out, but because our society simply discarded me when I became ill.

For all its material advantages, the sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled.

Even after four hundred generations in villages and cities, we haven’t forgotten.

The open road still softly calls, like a nearly forgotten song of childhood.


Things are changing again, changing as dramatically as the Quarternary cycles that drove our evolution. Discarded just as I was, this quarter of U.K. youth who’ve faced homelessness  are arguably the descendants of our roaming ancestors in a much deeper way that just genetics. We should look to them, alone and in small groups, for stories academics won’t explore, because they are simply unequipped with the experiences needed to interpret them.

But is that the resting frame for our species? Buddhists might say this is avyakata, a question for which there is no answer, or that which is meaningless in context for us.

One Quarter Of U.K. Youth Have Been ‘Dangerously Homeless’

New research shows that 26% of aged 16-24 have had to sleep in an “unsafe place” due to homelessness, such as in a car, a car park, a tent in a public space, or on the streets—amounting to an estimated 1.4 million young people (one in six) who have slept rough or unsafely in the just last year, with just under 300,000 doing so on any one night.

Astonishing: A quarter of young people in the UK have experienced ‘unsafe’ homelessness

I have long wrestled with a chronic health problem, as do 85% of all homeless adults. I have been blessed with good friends during this last decade, all but a month of my camping has been elective, and that month was during a glorious, dry California fall. I’ve long since found housing, but I still periodically reivist the site, enjoying the solitude it provides.

My own (mis)adventures are profoundly weird, I have long since stopped questioning why I am always at the nexus of such strange happenings, but I don’t imagine these young adults sleeping rough are quite so philosophical. This is a country losing a generation of youth, they’re headed up the Dark Mountain, perhaps into the same territory inhabited by the Irish Travellers.

United Kingdom

United Kingdom

The Brexit was a foolish move, as bad for the U.K. as electing Trump is for the United States. The West is spinning out of control, the echoes of the downfall of Italy or the Weimar Republic are clear. We can only hope when those disaffected, discarded youth head out, they choose the Road To Utopia.

Last Of The Laurentide

The last of the six ice ages Earth experienced is the Quarternary, lasting the prior 2.58 million years. Understand what an ice age is – a period in which the poles have ice caps, not a period when we see glaciers in temperate latitudes. Those are stadials, and the last time we had those glaciers was during the Younger Dryas, which ended about 12,000 years ago. One of the periodic ice sheets in North America was the Laurentide.

And researchers have found the last of the Laurentide, that solid white spot in the middle of Baffin Island is the Barnes Ice Cap.

Baffin Island

Baffin Island

This five hundred meter thick sheet has just three centuries left at our current 400 ppm of CO2.

I wonder if that last little patch of ice will be a redoubt for reindeer or polar bear/grizzly hybrids, the way Wrangel Island was for the mammoths. That’s ten generations in our future, but it’s the blink of an eye in geological terms.

I don’t know that a Barnes Ice Cap core will be joining the others in the ice core vault at Antarctica’s Concordia Station, but it seems quite likely.

There are a variety of markers that are cited as the start of the Anthropocene, often the radionuclides from the Trinity test in 1945 being the first solid entry in the geological record. The lost of this last bit of the Laurentide will surely be an important milestone in the early centuries of this fearsome new age.



First A Seed Vault, Now Ice Cores

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a sort of Noah’s ark for plants, seeds from 300 species are preserved there in the event that we have some sort of global issue that threatens our food supply.

I just learned there is a similar storage facility for ice cores at the French-Italian base at Concordia.

Concordia Station

Concordia Station

Concordia Station Map

Concordia Station Map

The program started in 2015 at Grenoble and it aims to provide durable storage for ice cores even if a worst case 10C of warming hits.

There will be cores from the ice sheets, massive records spanning up to 900,000 years. The mountain glacier cores are shorter, just 100m to 150m, and they should be more numerous than the more demanding to obtain ice sheet cores. Each provides local climate history insight, including both gas bubbles and particulates.

Preserving the seed stock is a simple, easily understandable move. The motivation for keeping the ice cores in the face of unstoppable warming requires a little more thought. Maybe one day soon Mother Nature will utterly crush climate change denialism and we’ll suddenly have need of what those cores can reveal.

I remember another time when humans collected ice for snowballs, laughing and playing, each of them not understanding that they had reached a point of no return.

Titanic Sinking

Titanic Sinking